It can be very tempting as an elder (in whatever context: family, school, youth group, church, denomination, organization, committee, etc.) to just do things yourself; you’re more experienced, more capabable, and can get things done quicker. And as time goes on and you keep doing things yourself for those very reasons, those reasons become self-perpetuating: you are more and more experienced than anyone else will ever be because they are never given a go.
The problem with this habit is that when the time comes for us to depart the role, no-one can inherit it because no one is capable. That is, the way our ministry has been conducted over time has been done in such a way that the ministry will go through tumoil as the change of generation occurs. Either the ministry itself will collapse because it has been built entirely around ourselve (and there have been some well-publicized churches and movements in recent times that have acknowledged a contentment with this reality), or the ministry will suffer lag as someone completely inexperienced to the role seeks to take the reigns without any prior help. I’ve seen that happen before too, and it’s ugly.
One of the first things I was blessed to be taught in ministry was this: train people up so that you begin to work yourself out of your role as soon as you get there. Sometimes people won’t understand it (they’ll want to know why the youth minister spends most of his time training and replacing himself with other leaders rather than doing the up-front stuff himself all the time), sometimes people will think little of you (“He keeps spending his time helping others to preach rather than preach himself”). Most of the time you’ll potentially find it frustrating (“I could have preached/led/run that far better than they did”). And, like getting ‘help’ from your toddlers, the activity could take twice as long with a less than professional result.
But the result is not just the multiplication of ministry (an idea we are perhaps familiar with), but the preservation of ministry across the years.
In other words, we want to teach ourselves to step aside so others can have a go. Stepping aside doesn’t mean stepping out: we stay there and mentor personally and individually those we are training. We give them preaching slots when we’re there, not when we’re on holidays. We get them onto the committee with us and give them wisdom afterwards over coffee.
We also step aside so others can step up under our care. We don’t get people to step in (“You can do it only because I can’t be there to do it myself, because I’m on holidays”), we teach people to step up.
Permit me to illustrate this by making a two-sided appeal, that I guess has emerged from my own experiences as I’ve thought about intergenerational ministry (whether the ‘generation’ of a few years at youth group, or a few decades in denominational work).
First, to those of us being ministered to in any given context: don’t equate certain activities with the ministry position. For example, the senior minister’s role is not to preach each week, but to safeguard the ministry of the word and prayer. Now that may mean he preaches most regularly, but it doesn’t mean he has to preach exclusively or even most often. Does the youth minister need to be of a certain mould (e.g. good at ‘youth talks’) to be a good youth minister? The good youth minister continually trains up others in a high-turnover ministry where a generation is six years at best. The reason I make this appeal is because the minister needs to be freed from certain pressures from his flock about how a ministry is to be run in order to have the flexibility to develop the ministry across generations and certainly beyond his own generation.
Second, to those in positions of eldership: don’t equate your eldership with a particular role, or an institutional office. You don’t need to hold a certain role in church, be on certain committees, or even be employed by your denomination to be an elder to others within the denomination. Eldership is about relationships, not institutions, and mentoring is personal, not institutional. Rather than preach every week, run every Bible study (am I guilty of this one!), run every committee or speak at every conference or camp (if that’s you), find and train others to do it instead. Be a mentor to others, and get them to step up within the youth group, church committee, or denomination, and give wisdom and insight behind the scenes. Put other people on the committees and share your wisdom with them outside of the meetings. Spend the time with your upcoming preachers and get them preaching under your tutelage. Once again, I make the appeal so that we all learn to work out our core business in such a way that the preservation of ministry across generations is presevered. ‘Dominate til I die’ -type models (forgive the crassness) have little longevity to them, especially since they’re predicated in part on a secret expectation that God won’t take my life in an instant. I could die tomorrow; so I don’t leave generational transition until tomorrow: I do it today.
Replace yourself, don’t perpetuate yourself. Step aside so others can step up. Otherwise, when you step out others will have to step in, and it’ll be everything you feared in the first place (when those fears kept you there instead of them) and more.